An old Russian folk tale says that in days gone by, young married couples were locked inside a granary shed for privacy on their wedding night.
True or not, it's a story that has found new life on the streets of Moscow.
As the story was told to me, several years ago a newlywed couple revived this tradition when they sealed their vows by placing a padlock on the rail of the Luzhkov Bridge, which spans a canal of the Moscow River, and threw the key in the water, symbolizing the permanence of their union. It was said that if either member of the union wished to end it, they would have to dive into the freezing cold and extremely polluted water to retrieve the key to the lock.
The story went viral, and in a few weeks the bridge railings were covered with hundreds of locks in a city where weddings are usually big splashy affairs with stretch limos. However, the city fathers decided the bridge full of padlocks had become an eyesore and they were cut off, but that only increased the fervor of young Muscovites in love.
Russians are raised on folklore and fairy tales; and they fell in love with the idea of using the locks to symbolize permanent love, especially when it involved finding one particular key among thousands at the bottom of the waterway in order to end a marriage. As the tradition spread, the divorce rate in the city reportedly dropped. While this is probably an urban legend, it's a good one.
Realizing the popularity of this custom, the city instead erected a symbolic tree made of steel on which couples were encouraged to place their locks. This became so popular that within a couple of years the bridge was packed with trees, and the idea was extended along the entire street next to the canal. Today there are 10 streets in Moscow where newly hitched couples go to visually present their love to the world by placing a padlock on the steel trees.
The trees each have hundreds of padlocks, some of them modern and new, but the most popular seem to be old – the older, the better. Ancient-looking padlocks the size of a human fist, which require an old church key, hark back to medieval times. Many are painted bright colors, and almost all are hand-painted with the couples' names and the date of their wedding. The trees look like metallic cotton candy or steel snow cones.
I was told that so many keys had been thrown into the river, along with shattered champagne glasses, that the canals must now be dredged regularly to ensure the continued passage of the popular tour boats.
While the Luzhkov Bridge continues to fill with locks, some couples have begun to express their love by placing padlocks on the fence rail in front of the popular Cathedral of Christ the Savior – so many, in fact, that now the city has workers standing by with bolt cutters to remove the locks daily. In my wanderings I have found them in remote, out-of-the-way places one would never think of looking for them, private statements of love not meant for the general public.
Tourist maps now show the locations of "wedding lock streets," and at least one enterprising gentleman has opened a stall selling brightly colored brand-new padlocks designed to look old.
In my five days in the city I was astounded by the sheer number of wedding parties I saw, almost all of which stopped to add a padlock to an ever increasing collection.
Moscow is rapidly changing from the dour city filled with the cement blockhouses that symbolized architecture under communism to a metropolis of glistening steel and glass high-rises of cutting-edge modern design. And as this once-gloomy city transitions from its grayish past into one of glitzy high fashion, this old-time tradition is not only holding its own, but is gaining in popularity.